Those pricey school rides

School kids in Bengaluru

How affordable is school commute? One look at those young students, dangerously dangling out of hyper-packed autorickshaws, and you know the truth. Precariously perched on the footsteps of crowded buses, these children tell a story far removed from the comforts of a school van their parents clearly cannot afford.

Yes, school vans are a roaring business in Bengaluru. Ferrying students across the city, they make a killing even during holidays. But many parents, already burdened by the steep, ever-rising school fees, are left with little choice. They could either compromise their children’s safety to take the risky rickshaw route, or take out their personal vehicles.

Free passes

For students of higher classes, the BMTC bus pass has been a cost-effective alternative. Despite clear gaps in last-mile connectivity and associated safety risks, this option appeared attractive. The Siddaramaiah government’s budgetary announcement of ‘free’ passes made it look even better.

But that was months ago. Caught in a twister of financial woes, the state transport corporations, including BMTC are in no mood to take the ‘free’ route. They would do so but only if the government extends a subsidy, which now looks highly improbable. The recent protests by students and student unions have apparently made little effect.

Is there a different way out? Yes, optimize the use of BMTC buses by engaging these vehicles exclusively for schools during pickup and drop timings, suggests Srinivas Alavilli from Citizens for Bengaluru. “It is so much economical to use BMTC buses. The service need not be free, but should be heavily subsidized,” he explains.

Chartered BMTC buses

The implication is clear: Multi-purposing public transport this way will make better economic sense for BMTC. “The transport corporation can buy more buses with this additional revenue,” says Alavilli. This could also make a dent in the operations of the private vans, now under a cloud for rash-driving, unverified drivers and safety.

This could work if the government pumps in more money to BMTC for a public good, contends Vinay Sreenivasa from the Bus Prayanikara Vedike. The funds should not be seen as subsidy but an investment. “Chartered buses for schools are an option. Unfortunately, the BMTC does not have enough buses. We have been asking to double the fleet. There is a lack of will,” he says.

Specially trained conductors

BMTC could at least run more mini buses on school routes, suggests Sreenivasa. “Introduce these services with specially trained conductors. Tie up with school managements, parents and the traffic police to make it happen. Have request stops, crossings at grade near every bus stop,” he explains. If planned well, this could work out cheap, safe and practical.

To address the last-mile connectivity issue, intermediate transport modes could be explored. Ward committees and Residents Welfare Associations (RWAs) can work together with all the stake-holders to ensure that a well-planned school-to-home commute strategy works efficiently.

Bus pass worries

For college students, the immediate worry is about this year’s bus passes. Every year, the passes are issued at the beginning of the academic year. But this time, BMTC has delayed the process as it has proposed to introduce smart cards for all students. Existing students are allowed to use last year’s pass, but freshers are forced to shell out from their pockets.

This has introduced an element of confusion. “Some conductors don’t have a clear picture of what is happening. Since BMTC has not issued new bus passes, our college has provided a slip. We have to produce our old bus pass and the slip. Only then do the conductors let us in,” says Vaishnavi, a PU student from National College Jayanagar.

She commutes between Srinagar and Jayanagar every day. “This will be in the fixed route. We cannot travel in any other route. There will be the mention of one stop, where we are allowed to switch the bus,” explains Vaishnavi.

Unaffordable

There is no way they can afford the standard bus fare without a pass, free or subsidized. Here’s Bhoomika, a 2nd PUC student at Kumaran’s College: “I will have to change two buses to reach my college from Kanakpura road. If I buy the regular ticket, the bus fare will go up to Rs 36 for one way. So, every day, I would end up spending nearly Rs 100 if I have to switch three buses.”

The widespread concern about the rising cost of travel, and the prospect of a free pass to lessen their parents’ financial burden were potent enough to fuel student unrest. Ashwini, State Secretary, All India Democratic Students Association (AIDSO) notes, “The recent response for the bandh is the best evidence of how many are in dire need of affordable bus passes.”

Neighbourhood schools

Beyond subsidised bus passes and trips, neighbourhood schools could be best way to reduce commute costs. Urban mobility experts point out how the world over, schools are located within 200 to 500 metres of the house.

Perhaps the ‘Walk to School’ and ‘Cycle to School’ models propagated by Citizens For Sustainability (CiFoS) in Sanjaynagar could show the best way forward. To reduce traffic near the schools, CiFoS in 2015 had urged parents to stop vehicles at a distance. Seven schools in the area then came together for a cause: To have similar policies and encourage more children to walk to school in safe environs.

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Those pricey school rides

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